Cheap Plot Tricks, Plot Holes, and Narrative Design
Have you ever encountered events in an otherwise reasonably well-plotted story that make you groan? It may be an overused device; a highly improbable coincidence that betrays the heavy hand of the author; a deus ex machina that resolves an otherwise hopeless entanglement; a poorly motivated, out of character behavior. In this paper I analyze a number of events that I regard as CPTs or as PHs (plot holes), focusing on their functionality “for the story as a whole,” as well as on their prevalence in certain types of narrative and in certain historical periods. Through this critical approach to plot, I hope to help develop a badly needed storyology, in order to counterbalance the discoursology that has so far formed the main concern of narratology.
Temporal Paradoxes in Narrative
Our intuitive notion of time comprises four fundamental beliefs: (1) time flows in a fixed direction; (2) you cannot fight this flow and go back in time; (3) causes always precede their effects and (4) the past is written once for all. This paper examines narratives that create alternative visions of time through the violation of one or the other of these four principles, focusing on the consequences of the violations for narrativity. The denial of (1) occurs in narrative that reverse the direction of time (Philip K. Dick’s Counter-Clock World), but after reviewing several possible definitions of time’s arrow, I argue that in order to maintain narrativity these stories should not invert the cognitive arrow. The violation of (2), constitutive of time-travel narratives, is shown to potentially result in causal loops (Audrey Nifenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife). Time travel can also lead to causes preceding their effects and rewriting the past, but here I discuss stories that create these paradoxes without the benefit of movement across time (D.M. Thomas’ The White Hotel and Emmanuel Carrère’s La Moustache.) Against logicians who claim that a single contradiction in a system results in the destruction of the entire system, I argue that temporal paradoxes do not completely block the construction of a fictional world, but rather, invite the reader to imagine a “Swiss cheese” world in which contradictions occupy well-delimited holes of irrationality surrounded by solid areas about which the reader remains able to make logical inferences.
Fiction, Cognition, and Non-Verbal Media
While the earliest attempts to define fiction were based on language-based narrative, the concept quickly spread to other types of text and to other media. Nowadays theorists debate the issue of fictionality not only in film, where the concept is solidly established, but also in painting, photography, and even music. A truly meaningful theory of fiction should be more than an instrument by which to sort out all texts into fiction and non-fiction: it should also tell us something about how we experience these texts, what we do with them, why we consume them, and why it is important to make a distinction between fiction and non-fiction. It should, in other words, have a phenomenological and a cognitive dimension. In this paper I l examine critically the extension of the concept of fiction beyond its literary homeland by asking of other media under what conditions the judgment “is it a fiction” fulfills the conditions of cognitive relevance.
Interactive Narrative, Plot Types, and Interpersonal Relations
The design of an interactive narrative begins with the choice of a type of story. In this paper I examine the potential of three kinds of plot for active user participation: the epic plot, which focuses on the struggle of the individual to survive in a hostile world, the dramatic plot, which deals with the evolution of a network of human relations, and the epistemic plot, which is propelled by the desire to solve a mystery. I distinguish two basic types of immersion—ludic and narrative, the latter subdivided into spatial, temporal and emotional variants, and I discuss the ability of the three kinds of plot to generate these various forms of immersion. I then distinguish two types of emotional involvement—self-centered and other-centered, which correspond to interest for one’s own avatar vs. interest for non-playing characters. The former is typical of games, while the latter is typical of non-interactive narratives. The combination of these two types of involvement is one of the biggests problems that awaits interactive narrative.